He was nudged into discussing the infamous mistake the Pittsburgh Steelers made in 1955 when, after drafting him, a hometown product, in the ninth round, they never gave him a chance to play in a single exhibition. Then, just like that, he was cut loose.
"I remember I was in all the scrimmages and went against the first-string defense in practices all the time, but coach Walt Kiesling wouldn't let me play in a game.
"We were playing an exhibition in Miami against the Detroit Lions. I was on the bench and Kiesling looked right at me. I figured he was finally going to use me. I reached down for my helmet and then he said, 'Marchibroda.' We had Ted Marchibroda as a quarterback and also Jimmy Finks and Vic Eaton. Ted had only been back with the Steelers from National Guard duty about two days and he was using him.
"We returned to Pittsburgh, had the weekend off and then I rode back to training camp in Olean, N.Y., with Finks and Lynn Chandnois. En route, we picked up Ted Marchibroda in Oil City [Pa.]. On Monday morning, assistant coach Nick Skorich, a real nice man, told me to bring my playbook and come see the head coach, Kiesling. I knew what that meant.
"He said he was going to have to let me go because he couldn't keep four quarterbacks. I said to him, 'Coach, I'm not upset you're getting rid of me, but you never even gave me [an] opportunity; that's what I feel is wrong.'
"I got $ 10 bus fare from Olean to Pittsburgh. I kept the money and hitchhiked home with another kid who got cut. He went off to the seminary and became a priest."
Unitas signed to play for a semipro team near Pittsburgh, the Bloomfield Rams, for $ 6 a game and took a job with a pile-driving crew. He didn't mind the work and needed the money because he had a wife, Dorothy, and a son, plus another child was expected soon.
He was making $ 11 an hour and working as the "monkey man" with the outfit, meaning that every morning at the job site he climbed 125 feet up the rig to grease the equipment. "We were driving piles, creating 50 tons of pressure every time we drove the corrugated pipe into the ground," he recalled.
That's what Unitas was doing when the Colts signed him for a non-guaranteed contract of $ 6,000 (no bonus) and, on the rebound, he went on to become the greatest quarterback the NFL has known.
Personally, he's blunt, unselfish, comes to the point in a hurry, is trusting and, yet, at the same time, suspicious, particularly of strangers -- the reason being that he has too often been betrayed by business partners and, at this time in his life, at age 64, believes in keeping his guard up to ward off con artists and pitch men.
Now he's an official with Matco Electronics Group in Timonium and is either in the office or on the road for sales presentations.
A storied career
With the Colts, he was the only player to be a part of three championship teams -- in 1958, 1959 and the Super Bowl in 1970. He set 22 records, was the league MVP three times, played in 10 Pro Bowls and was named to the all-time NFL team.
Playing against Unitas for the Green Bay Packers, tackle Henry Jordan was asked by a teammate, in short-yardage situations, what kind of play he might expect. "I don't know," mumbled a weary and wary Jordan, "because for five years I've been trying to figure him out and he always does what you don't expect."
Unitas believes being a defensive player in high school and college helped him formulate a comprehensive concept of the game.
"I hate to see specialization," he said. "I know playing defense made me a better quarterback because I had a chance to realize how defensive players think in certain situations and then as a play-caller could go at them accordingly. With the Colts, a smart player named Lloyd Colteryahn told me how I could work a lot of plays off a slant pass.
"Get that going and then do other things off it. I studied game films and looked for tendencies. I also kept checking myself so I didn't get into the same play-calling sequence. Gee, the slant pass was good for us. Throwing to Raymond Berry or Lenny Moore on the slant set up other things we could do. Can you imagine any coach showing Raymond or Lenny how to run a slant?
"I paid attention to players in the huddle and what they said they could do. If you listened to L. G. Dupre, he was open every play. But I did throw to him. Now with Jimmy Orr, another fine player, when he would say, 'Senor, the time is now and I can beat him on a z-out pattern.' When Orr said that, you knew he could get it done."
As for contemporary quarterbacks, Unitas regards Dan Marino highly and says that in 1983 he suggested to Ernie Accorsi, then general manager of the Colts, that he draft Marino. In the same respected category he includes John Elway, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Steve Young.
The most money Unitas ever earned from the Colts was $125,000 a year. Sold to the San Diego Chargers, they immediately doubled his contract to $250,000, but that's hardly comparable to the millions of dollars players make today.
Unitas has great memories, a reputation to match and a body that has almost as many replacement parts as you can find in a repair shop.
From his perspective, there is no reason for lamentation, but he has paid an enormous personal price for throwing touchdown passes. Yet he doesn't complain. That was never the Unitas way. He just took the best shot they had to give, got up, looked the defense in the eye and found a way to put the ball in the end zone.
The Golden Arm is on the mend
Unitas: The legendary quarterback has fabulous memories, but also pain to remind him of his 18-year NFL career.
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